Unconventional Wisdom: Candidate Development – The First Steps

OK, you are considering a run for public office, now what do you do?

At this point, many first time candidates expect support and knowledge to come to them.  It rarely happens, like anything else, you must seek it out and work for it.  The first step should always be an unbiased and realistic evaluation of the potential candidate and their capacity to fulfill the requirements of a campaign for the district.  This involves basic questions about time commitment and financial situations.  Dishonesty at this point is common, that is, candidates lying to themselves about what they can and cannot put in to a proposed race.  Common factors to look at:

*  Why does the potential candidate want to run?

*  Why is the potential candidate a Democrat (and progressive/liberal)?

*  How many hours per week will this campaign require now, next month, three months from now and for the remainder of the campaign?

*  Financially can the candidate and their family survive the costs of the campaign, including any loss of pay, time and energy?

*  What will the average day look like for the candidate at various points during the campaign, is the candidate prepared to commit to that?  Are there health concerns that might impede such a commitment?

*  How will the geography of the district, weather and transportation impact the candidate in this campaign?

Once we have all those physical/logistical (and additional related questions) answered and written down, we move on to the campaign finance aspects:

*  What is a realistic cost of a minimally competitive campaign for this race?  A strong campaign?

*  How much money will the candidate themselves put in to the race, and in what form?  (I personally restrict candidates to less than $50k in “loans” to the campaign, as startup cash only, anything else should be contributed with no expectation of repayment from donors.)

*  What is the contribution limit and any related fundraising rules (like public financing, matching funds, etc)?

*  What is the strength of the candidates social networks, is 300 donors in the first month possible?  500 in the first quarter?  Refer to this exercise: Conventional Un-Wisdom: Fund Raising and further detailed here: Tools for a Better Organized Campaign

*  Reinforce the reality that 80% of the candidates time will be fund raising, phone to face, in a closed room.  It isn’t all fairs and pig roasts.

If the candidate has the desire to run and the answers to all of the above questions indicate the candidate has the capacity to run, the next question to assess is whether or not they have the temperament and traits to be a good candidate.  Some weaknesses can be overcome with training, others cannot.  If the candidate isn’t interest in improving/changing, it isn’t going to get any better later in the campaign.  Creating an honest assessment at this point in the process allows periodic review throughout the campaign, charting progress and allowing for adjustments to correct or compensate.  Too often, heavily “recruited” candidates are led in to the race under the impression they are perfect as they are, they hold on to that belief to the bitter end and everything invested in them throughout the campaign (money, time and sweat) is thrown away.  Weeks later someone tells them, “By the way John, you probably lost 5,000 votes to your halitosis, didn’t anyone ever offer you a breath mint?” (Yes, this is a simplified issue, they are rarely this easy on a campaign.)

For (potential) candidates, one of the biggest struggles is finding people to serve as their campaign advisors and staff.  They often fall in to traps of paying large sums for minimal returns, consultants and advisors that are more hype and reputation than experience and performance.  There are a few good email lists and websites that are of some use, such as Jobs That Are Left, but the best place to start is right here at MPA Political by contacting us and reading Conventional Un-Wisdom: Hiring Staff.  Really, any potential candidates should read everything on our How To’s and Training page.  Lower tier and long time elected officials running for higher office often stick with the people who have worked on their previous campaigns and worked in their government offices, this often creates a closed campaign, where no new thoughts or talents are brought in and the campaign is unable to compete on the larger playing field of higher office.  Campaigns should include new thoughts, differing experiences and ideas.  If your campaign strategy meetings result in everyone agreeing 100% with everyone else, you need to find some thought-diversity for your team.

Somewhere in these early stages, there needs to be a compliance check with all applicable laws, rules and authorities.  Is the potential candidate legally qualified to run for the office they are planning to seek?  Do they understand the finance rules and regulations and have a plan to comply with all required reporting procedures?  If elected, what actions are they required or recommended to take, for legal, ethical or public relations reasons?  This might include turning control of a business over to a blind trust or resigning from Boards or similar positions.  Are they restricting from fundraising or campaigning due to the Hatch Act (or any similar state/local law)?   In Florida there is a “resign to run” law that impacts state level elected officials, it is important to know how and when that impacts your campaign.  You can and will be thrown off the ballot for failure to comply with related laws and procedures.  If you are seeking Federal Office, filing with the FEC is mandatory.

The last of these first steps is to build a timeline for the campaign including goals and benchmarks.  To do this, one must have a complete understanding of the candidate and landscape, including vote goals and turnout expectations.  If you haven’t figured this out, and haven’t already brought in a professional for all of the processes listed above, you absolutely need a professional for this, for smaller races it might be a one time fee for a week or two of work, or it might be the first payment beginning a monthly relationship with a general consultant.

This is a discussion of the first steps, which doesn’t include all of the steps of learning to sit up and crawl…the process can begin as early as middle school and as late as however old you are today.  This would be a good time to look over What Inspires Candidate to Run? if you haven’t done so already.

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